Book project offers CDCR new rehabilitative chapter

Books stacked.
Books stacked on top of each other. (Photo courtesy Million Book Project.)

Project’s Freedom Library helps through books

CDCR has partnered with the Million Book Project to help transform the way incarcerated people think about books. By bringing carefully selected 500 “must-read” titles into the prison system, the Freedom Library looks to open a new chapter of rehabilitation.

(Learn more about the project on their website.)

The project’s goal is to get one million books into prisons throughout the US in hopes of changing another incarcerated person’s life through reading as it has changed the founder, Dwayne Betts’ life. The titles include fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. The books will be added to 1,000 Freedom Libraries across the country.

“CDCR is excited to work with The Million Book Project to improve reading opportunities for our incarcerated population.  This movement will enrich lives and improve public safety,” says Brantley Choate, Director for the Division of Rehabilitative Programs.

Mission is personal for project founder

Betts says the project is important on many levels, particularly as a way to help reach people.

“I went to prison when I was 16 years old. Very quickly, books became my refuge and sanctuary. And they were with me, from Faulkner to Shakespeare to Walter Mosley and Toni Morrison and Iceberg Slim, for my entire bid. Then they were there when I came home and started working in a bookstore and going to college,” he said. “We all understand how our lives can be ruined by crime and violence. But, we don’t always believe that books can rebuild some of that. The Million Book Project is about bringing the books that shaped me to people who will appreciate them, to people who might be shaped. It’s about supporting the imaginative space that men and women inside are cultivating. And really, it’s just remembering who I was, those many years ago, when I was a kid in a cell.”

Access to books is key

The expectation of this project is to not only introduce specific books into the prison libraries, but to increase the access of these titles in the library as well as housing units, day rooms, and other areas.

Along with these books, there will be the production of a catalog that will include the titles of the books in the Freedom Library, along with what the book is about and why it matters.

The first shipment of books is expected to arrive at CDCR institutions in fall 2021.

Q&A: Brandy Buenafe, Principal Librarian for CDCR

CDCR librarian holds books.
Brandy Buenafe, Principal Librarian for the Office of Correctional Education.

How did CDCR get involved with this book project and what is your role?

Dwayne Betts, the program designer, reached out to Dr. Choate, the director of DRP, and Dr. Choate invited me to be involved. I’m part of the curatorial group, offering my thoughts on book selection.  In California we are also doing a soft open in five institutions of single titles at a time, and I am collaborating with the Project in selecting those titles.

Why is this project important to you as a Librarian and CDCR employee?

As a librarian, this is crucial, to get books into the hands of readers where they are.  Not all readers will come to the library, either because they think it is just for legal work or because they had negative experiences with libraries on the outside. They might also have a work or other assignment during the hours the library is open. 

The Freedom Libraries will be placed in housing units, allowing for easy access where the inmate patrons are. As a CDCR employee, I am always happy to be able to provide my patrons with more books, and 500 titles is a wonderful opportunity.

What are the details of the program?

Libraries will be donated to prisons in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. All Freedom Libraries will be collections of the same 500 titles. The soft opening books will be added one title approximately each month. The complete collection will be a one-time grant. The soft opening books will have multiple titles. After they are read, they will be available for others to check out. The main collection will have one copy of each title, and so patrons may need to wait for a book to become available.

These are books at a high school reading level.  They may stretch some of our readers, and that is good.  I read one of the books, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, as a sixth grader, and it took me all summer, but it was a life changing experience.

Are there ways the family or community can support this project?

Family members can encourage their loved ones to read, either a title from the Freedom Library or to visit their yard library and check out a book there. Reading anything increases reading level and studies show that increased reading levels lead to decreased recidivism. Reading is rehabilitative.

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